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Aurora Institute

What to Do When the Field Goes “Mustard”

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

This is the seventh in a series on problems of practice. (Check out the articles on gradingattendancepace, individualized learning, granularity, and late work.) We are interested in hearing from readers about other problems of practice they’ve seen or are struggling with in implementation.

What do we call the stage of field development when the so-called “experts” and expert organizations are providing inadequate, weak, or even bad advice? Several Google searches didn’t come up with an answer, so I’m going to call it the “mustard” stage… As in, we aren’t performing at the level needed to fully support districts and schools – in other words, we “aren’t cutting the mustard.”

It’s a stage that happens when a field is expanding and organizations feel they need to add capacity on a topic, either because it is important to their constituencies or because it is necessary to stay competitive. It also happens when the knowledge being generated by the people doing the work, in this case the people in districts and schools, is deepening and far outstrips the knowledge of the national and intermediary organizations talking about the work. Staff haven’t had direct experience with the topic, little research is available, and the nuanced knowledge is challenging to communicate in the mediums most used by national organizations such as briefings, PowerPoints, webinars, and social media blasts.

I believe that we may be sliding into or already even be waist deep in the “mustard” stage. And we need to make a fast course correction.

Indications that We Aren’t Cutting the Mustard

I personally know that I’m having an ever-increasing difficulty talking about practice, as for any one bullet point, there are conditions, variations, and interdependencies. I feel like I’m Goldilocks in search of just the right amount of accuracy – trying not to err by being too superficial or too detailed in the search of the “just right” amount of information. I’m also aware that I’m being asked questions that want a level of detail regarding implementation that I’m unable to answer – it is simply a much more granular demand for information than I’ve been able to collect through my visits to schools during the past seven years. This suggests a need to revisit what knowledge we are gathering (which is likely to have implications for how knowledge is developed) and how it is being packaged.

However, we may have an urgent situation in which national organizations and intermediaries are actually providing improper guidance that introduces and reinforces some of the problems of practice. (See the series CBE Problems of Practice.) A highly respected, in touch-with-the-field colleague recently informed me of this situation. I hadn’t noticed it but I have started to review materials from different national organization operating in the competency education arena. Within twenty minutes of scanning materials, I saw the problem. Below are just a few of the problems I spotted in videos of webinars, resource materials, and websites.

Problem #1: Leading with Pace

Several organizations’ first bullet describing competency education is about speed of learning, such as “students progress through material at different speeds.” People are likely to remember the first thing in a list of items. Thus, we emphasize “speed” here rather than learning. It is likely that people will now filter everything they hear by trying to figure out how to manage a system where students are operating at different speeds. We’ve tripped ourselves up before we’ve even started. (See the article CBE Problems of Practice: Self-Pace and Faster is Better.)

When districts and schools believe that competency education is primarily about pace, they can make mistakes such as thinking about students as faster and slower learners; pushing students through quickly without opportunity for deeper learning; and grouping students around pace rather than around the specific knowledge and skills they need to obtain to progress.

What do we want that first bullet to be that will become the filter for the rest of the information? Is it about deeper learning? Is it about equity? Is it about aligning with the science of learning? Before we think about pace, we have to create a shift in our understanding to think about students at different places on a learning continuum, not all starting at the same place in a curriculum to be covered. It’s about students starting at different points, learning different amounts towards common goals and reaching different points within a period of time. And then continuuing to work with along that continuum with more or less instructional support from teachers as needed. In addition, we have to get the point across that what is important is what we do with time, not time itself. In other words it is about timely and differentiated instruction and support.

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE do not lead with pace. Go check your materials and change your materials immediately if you do.

Problem #2: Leading with Grading

Several organizations’ description of what a competency-based district or school looks like or the changes that are needed begins with a first bullet about grading. Once again, the placement as the first bullet suggests it is most important and something to do first. That is simply WRONG. We’ve seen over and over that when districts lead with grading or introduce changes in grading prematurely, there is substantial pushback from parents and the community. (Some schools successfully making the transition have told me they started with grading but when I ask them about what capacity they had already built in their schools I always find out that they had made investments in creating a strong culture of learning, collaboration among teachers creating moderated understanding of proficiency, and a way of engaging and supporting students in habits of success.)

When schools prematurely introduce grading, conversation narrows to be about the grading policy itself, not on the reasons that schools need to change to better support children. The conversations becomes binary – should the grading change or not – rather than exploring deeper dialogue and how the traditional system is constraining learning, what the research on the science of learning tells us about how we can do better for our children, and why we want and what is needed to offer high-value deeper learning experiences where students have opportunity to learn how to apply academic knowledge and skills.

Furthermore, a number of other things need to be in place before a district or school changes grading policy – including a transparent learning continuum, support to teachers on how to coach students in developing the building blocks of learning (growth mindset, social and emotional learning, self-regulation, and habits of success), some degree of moderation so that teachers have an agreement on what it means to be proficient, and instruction and assessments that are aligned with the depth of knowledge. Thus, the idea that grading policy can and should be introduced immediately is misleading, as there is at least one or more year of implementation needed before grading should change. (You can always introduce levels of progression towards learning without changing the A-F grading.)

There is of course an exception to the rate of implementation: When a model is replicated or a school works intensively with a TA provider, I believe this process can be expedited. See Columbia High School’s strategy for change as an example.

Grading is always going to get a lot of attention as it is the primary interface between schools, teachers, students, and parents. That means it will require a lot of communication and engagement to introduce the change. You’d better have the other pieces in place so students and teachers can bear testimony that this is a better way to learn before you change grading.

Problem #3: Leading with Technology

Organizations frequently imply that competency-education (and personalization) is the same as the use of technology. I’ve seen organizations explain that competency-based education schools “use a digital approach to measure student progression.” Technology might be used to support many aspects of a school and learning, but a digital approach would not ever be considered a defining feature of competency-based education. Technology is a tool that supports, not the goal itself. The competency-based approach is about meeting students where they are and moving them forward (not tracking). Schools pay attention to monitoring progress and growth and ensuring that gaps are being repaired, not ignored and passed on.

It’s important to always lead with the big ideas of what makes competency education a more effective strategy for students and then, if needed, explain how technology can be helpful within the context of a promising practice.

– – –

I want to take a stand against creating a shame-and-blame situation. This is a learning opportunity. I believe that it is likely that at one time or another, all the national and intermediary organizations have contributed to this problem. I know at CompetencyWorks, we did talk about “time as a variable” until we realized that people interpreted this as students working at different paces rather students receiving different amounts of support. We rarely use that phrase anymore without emphasizing: Students start at different points, require differentiated instruction and differentiated levels of support to ensure they are growing at a meaningful pace towards graduation.

Bottom line: We don’t want our own field organizations contributing to the quality problem that is limiting learning for students and undermining our ability to sustain the momentum in advancing competency education. National and intermediary organizations play a vital role in shaping and disseminating ideas and providing technical assistance about how to implement those ideas. We need our national and intermediary organizations to be as effective as possible to support the expansion of high quality competency education.

What can we do so that we are cutting the mustard? A few quick ideas:

  1. All national and intermediary organizations should do an audit of your communications materials to make sure you aren’t reinforcing any of the frequent problems of practice. Please correct materials available on your website immediately. We can help each other by pointing them out when you see them.
  2. At the national level, we spend more time on how we are going to communicate the big ideas to people with the goal of understanding without thinking about how we communicate it might be interpreted within implementation. Just as teachers need to know about learning progressions (also known as construct maps) about where there are likely to be misconceptions and errors in understanding within a domain, we need to know about where it is likely there are going to be misconceptions or problematic implementation when we communicate ideas. Perhaps we can start to build examples of where misconceptions are happening and how to handle them.
  3. We can share our draft documents with other people outside our organizations before we publish. I’ve reviewed many documents over the years and find that it often opens up conversations about building a stronger understanding of competency education and the links to other major concepts and initiatives.
  4. Co-authoring is very helpful in getting more depth as well as challenging ineffective ways to communicate ideas.
  5. Perhaps we should create a collaborative Problems of Practice initiative. We know that it is the mistakes and misconceptions that happen in schools that often offer the most valuable moments in learning. Why shouldn’t that be the same for our professional lives? Anyone want to share their learning in communicating competency education, including the missteps and misconceptions you’ve had to address?

Please let us know if CompetencyWorks or other organizations are promoting problematic practice. By proactively seeking feedback, we can learn to “cut the mustard.”

Read the Entire Series: